Assessing Flight Skills: A Visual Aid

Posted by Raz on Oct 22nd, 2009
Oct 22

Seeing how the ages old argument about flight skills in baby-fledged vs unfledged birds is being beaten to death debated again, with the assertion that said skills can be determined through still photos [ed. comment: ?!] Carly and I have decided to assist the experts.

Clearly what the bird is in the process of doing, and what its intent is, is a key component to determining the skill of the flyer from the photo. To that end, we offer these photos to which thought bubbles have been helpfully added. I assure you, the utmost care was taken in conferring with the subject so as not to introduce observer bias into ascertaining the private behavior (thoughts) of the subject.

Oh, and Carly would like to invite y’all over to dis joint she knows at the beach where they pour the killer margs. Only wait til after flying, cuz it makes ya go kinda goofy.

Photographs © Hillary Hankey (top 3) and Grace Innemee/


New “Infinite Flight Cage”!

Posted by Raz on Sep 3rd, 2009
Sep 3

The building where I work has a floor plan like a rectangular ring: offices (36) along the outside walls, labs on the inside, and a wide corridor in between. 422 feet of corridor in fact, in a big loop. Yeah, wow. And by the time I leave at night I’m the only one on the floor.

So the last two nights I’ve started flying Piper there — it’s fantastic! We can do 150 ft straight line recalls, big loops where he’s out of sight 3/4 of the time, and loop around as many times as we want for stamina building. I hadn’t thought about it much because Carly never wanted to fly in the building (except to go visiting neighboring labs); she’s always preferred being outdoors, even as a youngster on walks. But for Piper it’s perfect. He’s already very good at flying down; the very first time he attempted it from a tall eucalyptus tree he did it like a champ. And he’s fearless with maneuvering tight turns. But he still spooks far too often outdoors for my comfort (or his) and his body language can go from relaxed to tense very quickly; it’s a danger that I want to take my time with to avoid, especially in a young flyer. His recall inside and outside is great, but that doesn’t help if there’s a panic flight. So getting lots of flying practice inside, while continuing to mature with handling unfamiliar things outdoors, is a very good combination right now. I have a feeling it will increase his confidence level in general too.

He was panting after two laps last night, so it will be fun to monitor changes in that.

That’s longer than the Infiite Corridor (825 ft) :-)


Skills anyone?? [update]

Posted by Raz on Sep 1st, 2009
Sep 1

Since this blog is one of those places that makes flying outdoors look fun, I want to point out, again, that in addition to having a good recall, it’s critical to have good flight skills as well. If you want a bird that can stay alive that is. Good flight skills include: can maneuver well and turn sharply, can fly down from heights, has been flying indoors or in a controlled environment long enough to have developed some muscle strength, and does not have partially clipped or damaged wings. Things a predator will have a field day with (“predators” including dogs, cats, raptors, and cars, not to mention birds like seagulls, ravens and crows who can just be intent on chasing an intruder away): a bird who is not acclimated to being outdoors, has little to no ability to turn or maneuver, has never flown down from heights before, has wings that physically impair its ability to turn or fly fast, has never flown in wind, has little stamina.

No matter what position one takes on training recall, or the method used to train it, it is just supremely irresponsible to put a bird at risk by rushing the move outdoors when basic flight skills are not in place. And yet I see people doing just that, and encouraging others to do so.

I would really like to find a single serious trainer who believes this isn’t true. All it takes is one surprise stiff breeze or startle flight. Even with a bird who is ready with these skills the transition outdoors is a very risky time because it’s a totally new environment. Adding the handicap of poor skills is terribly unfair to the bird.

(Oh, gee, there I go being “negative” again!)

First, for those who are not familiar with free flight lingo, any flight outdoors without restraints is “free flight.” Just because you’re only asking for 2-4 feet does not mean that’s “recall training” and not free flight. If a bird has a spook flight or gets caught in an unexpected wind, that 4 foot recall you were asking for becomes completely irrelevant. I believe flight skills and recall should be trained together; that doesn’t mean you do the most rudimentary recall with a completely inexperienced, partially clipped bird outdoors. As much as possible should be done indoors — learning how to land, turn, make sharp maneuvers, fly down. The bigger the indoor location (or aviary) the better. For flying in wind I personally like using a harness for that on a windy day so the bird can get the feel of how to deal with it without being blown away. (Here’s Carly on an extremely windy day practicing.)

Secondly, those who want to comment under the guise of a false identity may want to consider methods other than pseudonyms and fake email addresses. The odds that three different commenters on this blog site (say, for example, “Dave,” “Ron,” and “Joe”) would randomly have the same address, even if they were all on AOL and all in the same region of the country, are more than 4 billion to one, going by the way AOL assigns addresses. When you add in the fact that IP addresses are generally recycled back to the same computer whenever possible, the odds are even slimmer. But then I guess 4 billion in one things do happen once every 4 billion times or so.

Comments have been closed on this thread since they are getting very off topic and rambly.


Natural Fledging & Recall: Comments

Posted by Raz on Aug 1st, 2009
Aug 1

The following are comments regarding my post about training flight skills vs recall skills. Jim Dawson is an avian biologist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tuscon. He states that “a trainer overly focused on ‘recall’ will never let a bird truly explore its wings.” He also points out that birds naturally fledge with a type of A-B recall, gradually increasing their flight skills along with their confidence, under the supervision of their parents. It is that type of supervised, controlled skill-building that I prefer to use with my own birds, and which is typically used by professional trainers (ask around).

UPDATE: This discussion originated with someone’s assertion that a new trainer with an adult bird who was just being introduced to outdoor flying had to choose between focusing on allowing the bird to learn flight skills and training recall. My position applies to any bird who was raised by humans indoors, whether newly weaned or adult. I do not condone anyone inexperienced in hand-rearing and weaning baby birds to experiment with replacing a bird’s natural parents or a qualified breeder. Please see the guest post by Wendy Craig for details.

Nicely written — We find ourselves bounded by the ways that we think about flight. Our birds thus end up equally constrained. This blog touches on some of the false labels we put on behaviors.

Instead we need to think about how wild birds fledge and learn to fly competently. With all the written resources and video out there about wild birds, there really is no excuse any longer for not understanding natural fledging (all the way to strong skilled flight outside).

Recall is part of fledging naturally — babies don’t leave the cavity until parents refuse to go to cavity to feed them. Babies’ first flights are to the parents to get food. It’s parallel to recall to a person. It has to be done right away and without much food restriction. They are out for supervised, short periods and are not left at liberty ever. I am very much against any form of at liberty flying, even though people like Chris Shank do it very well.

The youngsters develop quickly and their skills keep pace with the final growth and hard-penning of their sails. Panic flights happen when a bird has the hardware (developed wings and some muscle) to fly high and far but is lacking the software (confidence and learned skills) to handle flight. A young bird fledging doesn’t have the hardware yet to go far. By the time they do, they’ve flown quite a bit and have the mental skills in place.

I agree with you that recall and skills have to happen simultaneously. I don’t agree with a sink-or-swim idea about flight. I don’t agree that putting a bird outside without a solid recall is the way to do it.

A to B recall is only the very start of the process. The point is to increase the skill level of the flights as the bird develops physically and mentally. The practice A-B flights are shaped into loops, and the loops are shaped into larger loops, then higher. Eventually the bird starts exploring dives and other maneuvers, and flights become longer and and require a great deal of stamina. But the goal at all times is to maintain a balance of control and freedom with the bird, so that they can explore their own limits without excessive risk. When dealing with an indoor, human-raised bird, we are the only ones who can provide that balance and allow time for mental growth (confidence outdoors, “thinking on the wing”) as well as physical growth (flight skills).

Note: Chris Shank is a long-time trainer who started out in the marine mammal world, and conducts week long workshops on training and flight at Cockatoo Downs in Oregon. Chris recently stated about at-liberty flying:

I have flown cockatoos in this manner. However, I do NOT promote that form of flying in any way now. It is an unsafe and reckless way to fly one’s companion parrot. (29 July 2009)

When we are dealing with a bird who is going outdoors for the first time, whether as a youngster or an adult, it is a good recall that enables us to maintain control over the pace and difficulty of the skills being practiced.

Regarding a suggestion from a “recall optional” proponent that the method of early training I advocate needs to undergo “peer review”… well … if there even were such a thing for publications in the bird training world, in this case it would kind of be reinventing the wheel. This type of flight/recall training is the industry standard. Descriptions of the process I used with Carly for early flight training can also be found in two articles in Good Bird Magazine (links here), a publication reviewed and edited by Barbara Heidenreich. (Not the same as peer review, but in the companion parrot world it’s the best we have at the moment. Barbara is a past president of IAATE, and training consultant with many zoos, as well as an active advocate for companion parrot training.) Most all of my training strategies that are not routine practice are discussed with one or more professional trainers/behaviorists before and during the process, and well before writing about them. I strongly encourage others to do the same and not rely on internet chat groups as a sole source of information.

In addition, because of such a need for training information to be somehow “vetted,” the newly formed IAATE Companion Parrot Committee was set up for just that purpose. Articles posted at the site will have undergone peer review by members of the committee as well as the IAATE board of directors.

For more information:

Jul 28

The idea that one has to work on either flight skills or recall skills with a new flyer is an odd one. The two training tasks are so complementary. Doing controlled flights under your cue is how a bird can build up confidence along with skill, and those three elements — good recall, skill, and confidence — are what makes a good outdoor or indoor flyer.

They need all three to fly safely, and it doesn’t make sense to ignore one to work on another. If you neglect the recall training, every time you allow latency you are training the bird that it’s OK to ignore your cue. If you don’t gradually increase the skill level of the recalls, you risk the bird becoming bored with the training and not progressing physically.

The only time these elements come into conflict is if you’re trying to move too fast. If recall needs work, you can do that at whatever the bird’s skill level is, and do lots of repetitions. The reps improve recall, increase overall confidence, and can be done while gradually pushing the skill level. Carly’s first outdoor flying consisted of A-B flights between me and a perch, increasing in distance; short loops away and back to me, increasing the diameter; A-B recalls flying down from tree branches, increasing in height; and targeting to me through a tree (combination of climbing, hanging, dropping, flying) to learn how to descend if she landed too high for her flying skills. These can be done in a systematic way if the bird has a good recall and the confidence with it’s skill level that you can maintain an outdoor training session without flyoffs, refusing to come down from trees, or panicking.

For a companion parrot, being outside with poor recall and/or low confidence just increases the probability that it will panic or get into a situation that is beyond its skill level. These are not parrots who were raised outdoors by parents in a nest in the wild. They are not used to everything the outdoors presents.

Putting a bird in a situation that is beyond its abilities and forcing it to essentially “learn or else” and become desensitized to its own fear is one of the worst training strategies there is if you are trying to base the relationship on trust and positive interactions. It’s called flooding.

UPDATE: Apparently those claiming it was necessary to make a choice between training flight skills and recall agree with my point (from public Freeflight group):

Yes doing controlled flights is ONE way to build up the birds confidence and flight skills.

So, if you can do it that way, why encourage an unnecessary choice between recall and skills, which is more risky for the bird?

I urge anyone considering freeflying their companion parrot to consider this subsequent statement as well, before using the unfledged baby or “just let ‘em fly” approach:

Recall is extremely useful but is not required to fly birds out doors. — Chris Biro

and ask yourself if you’re comfortable taking this attitude with a valued companion.

That statement alone says enough for me to close the book on anything coming from this source.